Anthony Latina hasn’t exactly had the easiest of times after taking over for Dave Bike six years ago, as perhaps no program has been bitten by the transfer bug more than Sacred Heart. Cane Broome, the NEC POY three seasons ago, transferred to Cincinnati after his sophomore season, and a year later all-league guard Quincy McKnight left for Seton Hall. While both players have blossomed at their new destinations, the Pioneers have struggled to replace that talent, finishing 8-10 in 2017 and 5-13 last year. Coming into the season, with the majority of last year’s rotation gone, Latina’s club was picked 9th in the league, perhaps putting the former CCSU assistant on the hot seat.
While it’s difficult to gauge recruiting classes at the mid-major ranks, there were expectations that Latina’s incoming freshman class would be the best in the NEC. Well, that’s quickly become a reality, as Latina has perhaps one of the most talented rosters in the league, albeit one of the youngest. The Pioneers have four freshmen and a Division 2 transfer in their rotation, yet have exceeded all pre-season expectations up to this point. SHU started out #325 in Kenpom at the beginning of the season, yet currently sit at #281. That’s quite a jump for a young team.
However, they’re not all young. Latina has a steady hand in senior Sean Hoehn, a pre-season first-teamer and one of the best players in the NEC. The combo-guard has done everything Latina has asked of him in his time in Fairfield, including play point guard last year. Now moved off the ball, Hoehn is having his best season yet, shooting a career high 40% from three (54% eFG%). Plus, there’s probably not a single player I would less like to see with the ball in their hands and the clock winding down while facing my Blue Devils. He’s a killer.
But back to the freshmen, which are led by the frontrunner for NEC ROY in Koreem Ozier. After averaging 24.5 ppg in his first two career games, he missed the next 9 games due to a university-imposed suspension. However, he came back in the loss to St. John’s, and has continued to put up big time scoring totals (15 at St. John’s and 20 points against UMass-Lowell). He’s been efficient despite a high usage (26.6%), can knock down perimeter shots (35% from three), and can get to the rack. He may end up being one of the best players in the league this season.
The other two key freshmen are both point guards, though they complement each other very well. Aaron Clarke has more of a scorer’s mentality, and has shown the ability to knock down perimeter shots (26% from three) and defend at a high level. Meanwhile, Cam Parker is a playmaker who is one of the best passer’s in the league. The lefty is averaging 7.3 assists per game, though doesn’t look for his own offense a ton (has attempted just 46 field goals on the year).
Latina completely retooled his frontcourt after the graduations of Joe Lopez and Mario Matasovic, though the replacements have been very solid. Jare’l Spellman, who transferred in from D2 Florida Southern College, might be the best shot blocker in the NEC (averaging 2.4 blocks per contest), and has also been one of the team’s best rebounders. Meanwhile EJ Anosike, who played a limited role as a freshman, has flourished as a true ‘4’ and has become one of the best offensive rebounders in the nation.
The Pios can really score the basketball, as they’ve scored more than 80 points in in five games, and are shooting 34.5% from three and 51.9% from two, both rated in the top 160 nationally. Where they’ve struggled is defensively, currently holding the 321st ranked adjusted defensive efficiency rating (per Kenpom). They’re allowing teams to shoot 36.3% from three and 55.4% from two, and not forcing many turnovers.
Things to Watch
CCSU’s best player, and arguably the best player in the NEC, missed the NEC opening loss to Wagner due to “concussion protocol”. The 6’5” senior was elbowed in the head during a loss at Oregon State last weekend, and may or may not be cleared for Saturday’s game at the Pitt Center. CCSU has struggled immensely when forced to play without its playmaker (Kohl leads the team in scoring, rebounds, assists, and steals), and replacing his 30.6% usage rate and 31 mpg (which is somewhat deflated, as he played just 2 minutes at North Carolina A&T due to flu-like symptoms) has proven to be difficult for the coaching staff.
Even with Kohl, this would be a difficult game for the Blue Devils. Without him, I’m not sure Central Connecticut has the offensive firepower to hang with the Pioneers.
Closing Out on Shooters
Donyell Marshall was livid after Thursday’s blowout loss to Wagner with his team’s inability (or unwillingness) to active close-out on shooters. In my opinion, it’s more than that; there is a lack of NEC-guard level quickness in the CCSU rotation, which causes the defense to be constantly chasing the ball/open shooters. Of course, it starts with limiting dribble penetration, something the Blue Devil guards have had trouble with.
The Pioneers will consistently play 3-guard lineups (and sometimes 4-guard lineups with the 6’3” LaRose featured as a stretch-4), and their four primary guards are quick, with an ability to drive the lane. As a team, the Pios are shooting 35% from three on the season, and were 8 of 17 (47%) in Thursday’s win over LIU-Brooklyn. What’s more, they will never have fewer than 4 three-point threats on the floor at one time, as even Anosike (6 for 16) and Spellman (5 for 9) have shown an ability to stretch the floor. Expect a lot of drives and kick outs on Saturday afternoon.
Anthony Latina wants to get up and down the floor. The Pios have an adjusted tempo of 73.7 possessions per 40 minutes, which places them among the fastest 30 teams in the country. However, unlike in past seasons, Marshall’s Blue Devils have shown a willingness to run, with an adjusted tempo of 69.8 (156th nationally; in Marshall’s first two seasons, CCSU was one of the slowest teams in D1).
With that said, I’m not sure Marshall wants to push the pace that much, especially with his team struggling to get back in transition over the past month or so. And if Kohl remains sidelined, expect the CCSU coaching staff to try and grind this thing to a halt.
CCSU's No Longer Hot Shooting
As has been well documented on this site, in November the Blue Devils looked like one of the best shooting teams in the country. In December? Not so much. Through their first six games of the season, Central Connecticut shot 46% from three. Since losing to Loyola Marymount just before Thanksgiving, they shot just 34% (right at the D1 average), and were just 3 of 20 fro three on Thursday against Wagner.
Take a look at the eFG% trend in graph form, courtesy of Bart Torvik:
Central Connecticut needs a win in the worst way; they were the only NEC team to lose a home game on opening night, and that puts them behind the 8-ball as far as NEC seeding goes. Sacred Heart, meanwhile, is 1-0 and looking to continue their hot start.
Head injuries are scary, so there’s no guarantee that Tyler Kohl will be able to play on Saturday (and I 100% support being cautious, as this is a kid who stands to make quite a bit of dough playing basketball professionally). With that said, if he’s able to play I would expect that he’s 100%, which means this will be a good game between two high-powered offenses. Without Kohl? All bets are off.